Wright on Election in Ephesians 1

"Yes, I really did write that."

“Yes, I really did write that.”

N.T. Wright makes two points about election in Ephesians 1. The first is that it’s real:

Verses 4–6 celebrate the fact that God’s people in the Messiah are chosen by grace. This is, perhaps, the most mysterious thing of all. God, the creator, ‘chose us in him’, that is, in the king, ‘before the world was made’; and he ‘foreordained us for himself’.

Many people, including many devout Christians, have found this shocking, or even unbelievable. How can God choose some and not others? How can being a follower of Jesus Christ be a matter of God’s prior decision, overriding any decision or freedom of our own?

Various answers can be given to this. We have to be careful here. Paul emphasizes throughout this paragraph that everything we have in Christ is a gift of God’s grace; and in the next chapter he will declare that before this grace reached down to us we were ‘dead’, and needing to be ‘made alive’ (2:5). We couldn’t lift a finger to help ourselves; the rescue we needed had to come from God’s side. That’s one of the things this opening section is celebrating.

Contrary to what some might think (even myself initially!), Wright affirms in a very careful, tentative, but apparently open way that God’s election of some and not others really is a thing. Now, very quickly he moves on to make a second point that many who affirm the first can tend to forget if they’re not careful:

The second thing, which is often missed in discussions of this point, is that our salvation in Christ is a vital stage, but only a stage, on the way to the much larger purpose of God. God’s plan is for the whole cosmos, the entire universe; his choosing and calling of us, and his shaping and directing of us in the Messiah, are somehow connected with that larger intention. How this works out we shall see a little later. But the point is that we aren’t chosen for our own sake, but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish through us. –N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (8–9)

God has plans for his elect beyond their election. They are chosen for a purpose–various purposes really, such as mission, worship, and so forth, all culminating in the glorification and enjoyment of God. An awareness of God’s saving grace in election, then, ought not be an invitation to sit on your stump, but to get on the move and fulfill God’s proposed purposes through us in the Church (Eph. 2:8-10; 3:9-11). Yes, that grace outrages and amazes, and it should also enliven us to worshipful service in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. If someone wants to post clear evidence to the contrary about Wright’s views on election, feel free to correct me here. I know he typically pushes a number of election passages in a corporate direction saying they’re not really what former dogmatics has said. Still, I’ve never seen him out and out deny individual election, and have seen him make statements like this that seem like affirmations of it.

P.S.S. Here’s the sort of thing I’m referring to in the P.S.: Wright on Election in Romans 9. (HT: Michael Bird and Matt Armstrong.)

All Things to All People? Really, Paul?

If you’ve heard more than 1 or 2 sermons on evangelism or outreach you’ve probably heard Paul’s declaration: “I became all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) Paul here makes the point that he has used his freedom in Christ, not for selfish gain, but in order to identify as far as possible with people in all cultural, racial, and socio-economic categories in order to present the Gospel to them. We would expect no less from the Paul who says that, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

Paul preachingPaul was about reaching everybody and so should we be. Right. I think a lot of us might pay lip-service to this but we don’t understand the real scope of who Paul interacted with–the fact that for Paul this wasn’t just a preacher’s hyperbole, but a straight-forward description of his practice. Historian Robin Lane Fox gives us an eye-opening summary of Paul’s ministry in his magisterial account of the Christianization of the Roman Empire:

Paul admitted to being “all things to all men,” and our best account of a Christian mission, the Acts of the Apostles, bears him out. Paul’s churches included slaves and people who needed to be told “not to steal”: Paul himself referred to the “deep, abysmal poverty” of his Christians in Macedonia. Yet his converts also included people “in Caesar’s household,” slaves, presumably, in the service of the Emperor. At Corinth, he converted Erastus, the “steward of the city,” another eminent post which was often help by a public slave: it is quite uncertain whether this man could be the Erastus whom a recent inscription in Corinth’s theatre revealed as a freeborn magistrate, the aedile of the colony. He attracted women of independent status and a certain property, people like Phoebe, the “patroness” of many of the Christians at Corinth, and Lydia, the “trader in purple,” a luxury commodity. These women ranked far below the civic, let alone the Imperial aristocracies. But Acts adds a higher dimension which we might not otherwise have guessed: Paul was heard with respect by one member of Athen’s exclusive Areopagus and by the “first man of Malta.” He received friendly advice from “Asiarchs” in Ephesus, men at the summit of provincial society, where they served at vast expense as priests in the Imperial cult. On Cyprus, he impressed the Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, by a miracle which he worked in his presence.  —Pagans and Christians, pg. 293

Paul’s boast was not empty; his contacts range from prisons to palaces. Now, aside from having Jesus come to personally knock him off his horse and commission him to preach the Gospel, Paul was a uniquely gifted man. Orthodox, brilliant, and cosmopolitan he was able to relate to the upper echelons of intellectual culture and society with ease. No doubt this is what impresses many of us–it should. Not all Christians can interact at the high levels at which Paul did. God calls and equips some of us for these extraordinary levels of witness and that deserves a special appreciation for the gifting and sacrifice that requires.

What ought to be even more fascinating in the example of Paul though, is that a man of such native talent and ability did not count it beneath him to pastor people who “needed to be told ‘not to steal’.” Part of what captivates us about Paul’s high-level contacts is that we would love to rub shoulders with the elite, the rich, the social movers and shakers. It’s a glamorous ministry to most of us. (Of course, Paul got a lot of these opportunities after getting arrested or having the tar beat out of him, so it wasn’t that glamorous.) Still, much, if not most, of his ministry was not to the social elite but to the outcast–both racially (Gentiles), and socially (slaves, barbarians, etc.) He humbled himself, made himself as nothing, going to dregs of society in order to share the Gospel. Of course, in this he was only following his master. (Phil 2:6-9)

That’s something for us to consider in this new year: am I striving to become the kind of person of whom it could be said “she became all things to all people” for the sake of the Gospel? Even of the poor? Even of the dregs? Even of the outcast? Are our churches the kinds of places where pastors need to be continually reminding people “not to steal”? Who is welcome among us? Who catches our attention as an object of God’s grace in the Gospel? Have I been humbled by the Gospel enough to follow Paul, who followed Christ?

For those of us struggling with this, it might be helpful to recall Paul’s words to the Corinthians when they were getting too big for their britches:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #8 Tim Keller on the Way the Gospel Frees Us to Witness

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s new book on church, Center Church and it is everything they say it is: amazing, rich, deep, helpful, game-changing, etc. One gem of a chapter so far is chapter 3,”The Gospel Affects Everything”, on the way that the Gospel has deep implications for all of life–it’s not just the “ABCs but the A-Z” of Christianity. In one section Keller takes the time to outline the way that the Gospel gives us a third way to think about various subjects (family, human authority, community, sexuality, etc.) It’s not moralism, nor relativism, but a different thing entirely.

One little chunk in particular chunk that caught my attention was the one about witness. Here’s what he says:

The moralist believes in proselytizing, because “we are right, and they are wrong.” Such an approach is almost always offensive. The relativist/pragmatist approach denies the legitimacy of evangelism altogether. Yet the gospel produces a constellation of traits in us. We are compelled to share the gospel out of generosity and love, not guilt. We are freed from the fear of being ridiculed or hurt by others , since we have already received the favor of God by grace. Our dealings with others reflect humility because we know we are saved by grace alone, not because of our superior insight or character. We are hopeful of everyone, even the “hard cases,” because we were saved only because of grace, not because we were the people likely to become Christians. we are courteous and careful with people. We don’t have to push or coerce them, for it is only God’s grace that opens hearts, not our eloquence or persistence or even their openness (Exod 4:10-12). Together, these traits create not only an excellent neighbor in a multicultural society but also a winsome evangelist. –Center Church, pp 49-50

For Christians looking to be salt and light, witnesses in the culture who don’t downplay the Gospel, or add unnecessary offense to it, Keller points us to the way the Gospel itself is the answer to evangelism–it is the power of salvation unto all who believe, (Rom 1:16) and even changes how we invite people to believe.

Take some time to think through your approach towards witness and evangelism. Ask yourself some questions:

Am I controlled by fear?
Is my approach humbly confident, or nervously arrogant?
Are their people in my life I’ve given up on because they’re “hard cases”?
Am I a good neighbor to those with whom I disagree?

Pray over these and see how God might be calling you to either move out of moralist arrogance, or relativist indifference. Most of all, meditate on the Gospel–let Jesus do the work of turning you into a witness.

Soli Deo Gloria